Can a Pet Dog Learn Service Dog Tasks?

Butterball, the author's house pet
Article Highlights:
  • Transitioning a dog from a pet to service animal may be possible, but presents a unique set of challenges.
  • Most service dogs have been extensively trained by professionals, and often are handpicked or bred for the right combination of personality, physical characteristics and health necessary to serve.
  • Author Jan Blaustone shares her own stories of trying to train a rescue dog to take over as a service animal once her current dog retires to the land of pethood.
by Jan Blaustone on January 1, 2012 - 2:42pm

QUEST Vol. 19, No. 1

In the 1990s, I adopted a shelter dog named Christmas, aka “Chrissy,” and attempted to train her to become my service dog. I wrote a Quest story about it in 2000 called Service Dog or Psycho Dog?

While she did perform well in some instances, Chrissy was a nightmare at other tasks. She was the right breed mix for the job but had the wrong personality.

Jan Blaustone
The author adopted Chrissy from a local shelter. The lively golden retriever mix made a better companion than a helpful aide.

Chrissy officially retired to the world of “pet-hood” a couple years later, when I became the grateful partner of Polo, a professionally trained and certified service dog. Polo claimed retirement status two years ago at age 10 and like most pets, now he lives to eat.

Having a partner like Polo was better than winning the lottery. When we left training camp at Canine Assistants in Milton, Ga., back in February 2001, I thought I knew everything Polo did, but I was wrong. His lessons for me continued beyond the training manual.

Polo restored my confidence to travel alone, go out alone at night, and ultimately he prepared me to live alone — something I never thought I would be doing now at age 56 and with a diagnosis of limb-girdle muscular dystrophy.

Anyone who has partnered with a certified service dog will tell you that — of the hundreds of commands they know and traits they possess — their most valuable gift is the gift of freedom.

While your pet dog may learn a few helpful tasks to assist you in your daily routine, pets have their limits, which ultimately will limit you.

You can’t expect your adult pet, who is acclimated to the easy life, to suddenly slip into the service dog role, even with the most diligent training. But picking up one or two commands may be doable.

Is it worth your time to test the waters and see what your pet has to offer besides endless love and companionship? Absolutely. Just don’t expect your pet to become your service dog after a crash training course you bought online.

What makes a dog a service dog?

Though not a service dog, Ruby is an excellent travel companion for the author.

Most service dogs come from reputable providers who have a wealth of experience and often a professional team of staffers who spend thousands and thousands of hours and dollars on each dog they train. Dogs are handpicked, and often bred, for personality traits, physical stature and health.

Service dogs usually begin training at birth and are about 2 years old when they’re paired with a recipient, leaving anywhere from eight to 10 years ahead of solid assistance before they retire.

Temperament, size, age and breed all enter into the equation. There’s a reason why providers commonly use golden and Labrador retrievers (or a mix) in their programs. They’re typically an ideal height and size to reach light switches, elevator buttons and check-out counters, in addition to providing some degree of balance for you when necessary.

Likewise, they typically have a congenial, good-natured temperament and are eager to please. During training, they soak up commands like a sponge and their retention is remarkable. After a year or two of consistent daily training, a retriever is likely to graduate with a couple hundred commands down pat.

A basic command: ‘Look. Get it.’

Probably the most commonly used service dog command is to pick up a dropped item. Your dog doesn’t have to be the sharpest tool in the shed to learn to pick up something from the floor. The biggest challenge is getting him to give it to you, as opposed to running off with it, if he doesn’t swallow it first.

For many years, I’ve volunteered with a nonprofit, no-kill animal rescue and have fostered a few hundred dogs. Consequently, I’ve also kept several who were difficult to place for one reason or another. One of those is now a 3-year-old, 105-pound Lab/golden mix named Butterball, or Butter for short.

I’ve had Butter since he was 3 months old. I successfully treated him for the deadly Parvo virus and a bad case of mange, and by then he was a rowdy 6-month-old wild man who had grown on me and vice versa. Butter quickly mastered basic commands, but when he got excited he became impossible for me to physically manage in public — hence, his public exposure remains very limited.

What I recognized in Butter as a receptive student, however, was his eagerness to please, his smarts, and his energy or drive. If your pet is “driven” and eager to please, then he is probably a likely candidate to learn new commands.

Butter and I worked with the “look” and “get it” commands first in order to spot something specific on the floor. Next came the “bring it,” “drop it” and “give it” commands, which required more repetition and patience on my part.

For common items you want retrieved, like TV remotes or a cordless phone, it sometimes helps to attach a strap to them. I use a shortened old leash so Butter can easily grab the soft loop handle without slobbering up the phone.

Butter loves “helping” me to the point he brings me things I don’t ask for or deliberately takes something from me (like slippers off my feet or napkins from the dinner table) in order to proudly give them back. Unlike a service dog, Butter often runs around the house with something before plopping it down in my lap, which isn’t helpful, especially if it’s a ringing phone. Although he has his own slipper, potholder, dish towel and the like, he gets a bigger rise from me by stealing mine.

This is why I’m not a trainer and he’s not a service dog.

Opening, closing and staying put

Chance, service dog
Your pet dog may be able to learn a few helpful tasks to assist in your daily routine, such as opening doors like Chance, a professionally trained and certified service dog.

Probably the second most common task for a service dog is to open and close a door or drawer, which sounds much harder than it actually is. On doors, you will need a lever (L-shaped) handle.

The key is to tie something to the door handle, like a knotted bandana or winter scarf, so they can “tug” the door open. Obviously, it works when the door needs to come towards you. Then your dog can turn to “tug” it shut from the opposite side, or if it needs to go forward, “paw” or “nose it” shut.

This also works on refrigerator doors.

Another rescue dog of mine is a 67-pound, 4-year-old yellow Lab mix named Ruby. Whereas Butter is thrilled to perform, Ruby is eager to simply go places with me. She has mild separation anxiety and is a fence jumper, making her adoption needs very specific.

Ruby was found tied to a tree in stifling heat while nursing flea- and tick-infested puppies. I fostered Ruby until her milk dried up, she gained 20 pounds and I could have her spayed. By then I was in love with her grateful, easygoing temperament and, since I work from home, her anxiety was not an issue for us.

For the last year, Ruby has accompanied me to outdoor public events where pets are welcome. She has learned to walk on a leash, although I still buckle myself into my chair regardless.

Most importantly, Ruby has learned to get in and out of my van only on my command. Sounds minor, but it is critical that your dog learns to stay in your vehicle until you are safely out and ready for him. We practiced it countless times in my closed garage and on a long tether until I was convinced she had mastered it. I still keep a big rawhide rolled chew inside my van as an incentive for her to quickly get in and stay in.

While Ruby is not certified to go places that a service dog can, I enjoy her company in the car, and we love going to outdoor venues together. Ruby is the perfect size and breed for a service dog but at her age, she just doesn’t have the drive to learn much else. She prefers merely to be with me, which isn’t a bad thing. It may be that one pet will work well at some tasks while another pet works best at others, like Butter and Ruby.

Work with a trainer

Polo, Butterball, retired service dog
Polo, the author’s retired service dog, left, and house pet Butterball taking it easy.

Even pet owners with the best intentions can benefit from the constructive help of a professional trainer who specializes in service dogs or some custom level of tasks above basic training.

Ask for trainer recommendations from your local vet, animal shelters and rescue groups, reputable groomers and boarding facilities. Look for a trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods with praise and play rather than using harsh methods with yelling and choke, prong or shock collars.

The Canine Good Citizenship test, developed by the American Kennel Club, outlines the kinds of public behaviors required of any well-trained dog. These include accepting a friendly stranger; sitting politely for petting; walking on a loose lead through a crowd; promptly obeying commands to come, sit, lie down, and stay; staying calm around other dogs, loud distractions and equipment; and not relieving themselves inside.

For a service animal trainer familiar with common assistance tasks, contact the national Delta Society (425-679-5500) for a host of information, including a directory of trainers. Service dog providers also may offer resource materials for purchase, such as training manuals with specific tasks tailored to your needs.

Delta Society can steer you toward Service Dog certification tests if you want your dog to have the ADA rights of other certified service dogs. I don’t intend to pursue certification for my pets because simply helping me inside my home is great.

Have patience

This morning Butter stole a raw egg from the carton when I wasn’t looking and pranced around the house with it until I spotted him.

“Drop it!!” I demanded and then realized that would be a messy mistake to which I quickly followed with a panicky, “No! Don’t drop it, give it!”

He immediately walked to me and released the fragile egg into my hand. There’s hope for us yet.

And if there’s hope for us, there can be hope for you too.

Jan Blaustone is an author and frequent Quest contributor based in Nashville, Tenn. Her background includes fire fighter, teacher, artist and volunteer for MDA and Proverbs 12:10 Animal Rescue, a no-kill, nonprofit Nashville rescue. She learned at age 32 that she has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy.

It’s extremely unlikely that you can turn your pet into a service dog of the caliber provided by a recognized organization like Canine Assistants. But it’s very possible that the dog in your life can assist you now and then with simple tasks.

The feedback and cues you give your dog are highly influential. As much as possible, give them an auditory command with consistent language and physical cues ranging from pointing to eye direction.

For example, “Look” is said while pointing and staring at the object on the floor you want addressed. Follow that with “Get it” and “Give,” while extending your hand palm open. Add “That’s it” for encouragement and when performed, don’t forget to praise, “YES! Good give!”

Here are 10 common assistance commands. If your dog is motivated and smart, and you have the time and patience for training, he or she may be able to master one or more of these:

  1. Leave it. Leave an item alone or ignore a situation.
  2. Push. Paw or nose something shut.
  3. Nose it. Push a button with nose (on a programmed phone, for example).
  4. Go to. Go to a specific person for help.
  5. Get it. Take hold of an item with the mouth.
  6. Bring it. Bring the designated item to you.
  7. Give it. Release the designated item in your lap or hand.
  8. Drop it. Release an item on the floor immediately.
  9. Tug. Pull open a door/drawer.
  10. Car. Get into your vehicle and stay/wait.
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